Urban agriculture: What limits?

By Don Okpala

Habitat Debate, December 2003 Vol. 9 No. 4

Urban agriculture has gained increasing significance, popularity and advocacy in recent years. As documented by an ever-increasing body of research, the economic crises and restructuring which the developing world has seen in the past decade or two are prime factors behind the phenomenon. But a well-informed, critical look suggests that urban agriculture does little to support sustainable urban development.

Urban agriculture refers to the raising of food crops, horticulture, poultry and other livestock in cities and towns. Such
activities are typically conducted in the back and front yards of houses, in public and private open spaces and in other vacant lots.

Advocates of urban agriculture point out major benefits. It enables the urban poor to reduce household food expenses, which enhances food security and nutritional control, especially in difficult circumstances. Affordable food releases more of admittedly low or precarious incomes for other expenditures, including health and education. And since urban farmers are more likely to be female, urban agriculture contributes to the empowerment of women and is an attractive alternative to informal, poorly paid jobs.

The advocates assert that urban agriculture is important not just to low-income, but also to middle-income earners, the unemployed and the underemployed.

A critical look, however, suggests that for all its immediate benefits as a coping strategy, urban agriculture does pose serious challenges to sustainable development and management of cities. The main concerns revolve around the environment, health and the economics of land-use management.

The higher pollution rates in urban areas threaten contamination of horticultural products, and urban livestock production can help spread epidemics. Chemical fertilisers and pesticides can pollute soils and the water table, as can livestock waste.

From a planning point of view, the allocation of more land to agriculture in cities encourages urban sprawl, with its implications for infrastructural costs. It can also affect the value of food produced on expensive urban land which could have higher value and yield if used for non-agricultural urban purposes.

In a rational world, this type of consideration should prevail, at least in the context of mature urbanisation. Related concerns include the resulting high costs and inefficiencies of infrastructures.

In the ongoing debate over urban agriculture, UN-HABITAT focuses on food security and income enhancement for urban populations. The agency is not opposed to urban agriculture as such. But its view is that the practice must be subject to certain conditions and limitations.

To UN-HABITAT, efforts to achieve food security must be part of an overall drive to eradicate poverty and promote sustainable development of society as a whole. In this context, it must be recognized that food security does not necessarily require that everyone produce their own meat, vegetables or fruit.

Therefore, UN-HABITAT supports temporary use of vacant urban land and plots for agricultural purposes as long as it is not detrimental to health, the environment and economic efficiency, and where there are ample tracts of vacant urban land. This is still the case in a number of Least Developed Countries.

But supporting or encouraging the allocation of land for permanent agricultural practice in urban areas would be a contradiction in terms. Of course, peri-urban agriculture is of a different nature and is usefully practised in many countries.

It is widely accepted that food insecurity in urban areas is more of a problem of access to food, than a problem of production or existence of food. Therefore, the challenge is to facilitate distribution and access of food for all socio-economic segments of the population, including the poor. This calls for appropriate urban planning and location

of markets, as well as provision of adequate transportation networks to ensure easy and affordable access.

Such provision of social and economic infrastructure through urban planning and management, including support for food distribution and access, is a key concern in the implementation of the Habitat Agenda. Therefore, with its conditional support for urban agriculture, UN-HABITAT is acting in keeping with its specific mission within the UN system.

Don Okpala is Chief of UN-HABITAT's Urban Economy and Finance Branch and Acting Director of its Monitoring and Research Division.

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